BY ZACH NUGENT
In hundreds of communities throughout the United States, animal shelters are overwhelmed and underfunded. A new Animal Humane Society effort is supporting those shelters — and saving lives.
Fannie lived under a piece of discarded plywood. The scruffy, black terrier spent the first year of her life there, tied to a six-foot leash, hidden in hip-high grass.
Fannie had been found roaming rural Oklahoma by a little girl who desperately wanted a new four-legged friend. The girl’s parents didn’t want a dog in the house, so Fannie ended up tied to a makeshift plywood shelter in her grandma’s yard. Conditions were grim, but alternatives — like letting Fannie fend for herself — seemed far worse.
In this part of Oklahoma, like so many other rural areas, resources for companion animals are few and far between. Fannie eventually found her way to Western Animal Resources, a rescue organization that takes in animals from across the state. Western Animal Resources works with Going Home Animal Rescue & Transport, a Tulsa-based organization that has a thriving partnership with Animal Humane Society (AHS). In no time, she and dozens of other dogs were on their way to find loving homes in Minnesota.
After spending months living tied up outside a home in rural Oklahoma, Fannie was transported to AHS. She was adopted after just one day in the adoption center.
AHS has been taking in dogs like Fannie for more than a decade. “We started working primarily with local rescues here in the Twin Cities and in greater Minnesota who would reach out to us when they were in need,” explains Laurie Sweep, who manages the AHS transport program.
As the number of animals surrendered locally began to fall — the result of successful spay/neuter initiatives and efforts to help people keep pets in their homes — AHS started taking in more animals from shelters that lacked the resources to care for them.
That number has steadily grown. Last year, AHS took in more than 8,300 animals from dozens of shelters and rescue groups in Minnesota and beyond.
AHS and the Twin Cities have earned a positive reputation nationwide, says Sweep. “New shelters are constantly reaching out to us because they know we have the capacity to find homes for dogs and cats in Minnesota. Some of them may transfer just one or two animals to us every year while others transfer hundreds to us.”
Many of those high volume transports are from the southern United States. It’s a region where pet related resources and animal welfare education are often sparse.
“Pet owners in the Twin Cities really see dogs and cats as part of the family,” Sweep explains. “While this mindset is becoming more common, it’s not universal. We may invite pets into our beds at night, but animals in many parts of the south are never allowed indoors.”
Pets are less likely to be spayed or neutered in communities with few resources, says Sweep. "That of course leads to more litters and pet overpopulation. So it’s a systemic problem. It’s a vicious cycle that leads to more animals in shelters and less resources to go around.”
AHS Director of Shelter Services Anne Johnson recalls a time when the Twin Cities and Animal Humane Society faced similar issues. Embracing spay/neuter efforts and making pet resources more available led to a cultural shift.
“Communities grow and mature at different rates, and this is a very mature community,” says Johnson, noting that AHS has been a resource and advocate for animals in the Twin Cities since the 1870s. “We’ve been working at this for more than 135 years, going as far back as providing drinking water for horses that pulled carriages. That work laid the foundation for what we’re doing today.”
Today’s work includes exciting new advances in animal transport efforts. In September AHS, the Chicago Anti-Cruelty Society, and the Wisconsin Humane Society launched the Animal Transport Alliance. The goal of this new alliance is not just to move animals, but to create a network of shelter mentorship and collaboration among source and destination shelters as well. This is something entirely new that hasn’t been done anywhere else.
Existing transport programs fall into two broad categories. At one end of the spectrum are corporate-funded groups that act as liaisons between shelters, operating trucks that move animals from one region to another. This system does a lot of good by moving a high volume of animals in need, says Johnson, but it provides little opportunity for shelters to learn from each other.
At the other end of the spectrum are grassroots transports associated with individual shelters or rescues. In many cases, these groups use volunteers and operate on razor-thin budgets. They are passionate and do tremendous work, but they often find themselves struggling for resources.
Neither approach solves the larger problem, says Johnson. “There is still a plethora of animals in need down south, and the resources in many southern shelters and communities do not exist in the way that they do up here.”
“So the question became ‘How can we help spark real change?’”
AHS President & CEO Janelle Dixon and leaders at the Chicago Anti- Cruelty Society and the Wisconsin Humane Society decided to tackle the problem together.
“Existing transport efforts have been fragmented,” says Dixon. “We knew we could accomplish more with a coordinated, regional approach.” The organizations worked together on months of research and planning, sending teams to Oklahoma and other parts of the rural south to get a firsthand account of the needs that exist in their local shelters.
A few months later, the Animal Transport Alliance was ready for the road. A generous donation from AHS supporters Richard and Susan Goldman funded the group’s first vehicle, a climate-controlled truck that can comfortably transport 45 dogs between shelters up to 12 hours away. Its inaugural trip in early September brought 33 dogs to AHS from a partner shelter in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“Time and time again, we hear that the number one barrier that keeps others from sending animals to us is the lack of a transport vehicle,” says Sweep. “They’re struggling to feed the animals in their shelters, to vaccinate them, to get flea and tick preventative. Buying a truck, staffing it, and sending it across the country is not even on the radar for them.”
Transporting animals can be a full-time job, adds Johnson. “In cities like Tulsa the entire animal care staff is just three people. Three people to care for all their animals — to house them, feed them, provide medical care, and facilitate adoptions. If we can help with their transport efforts, that can free up time and resources for outreach, more animal care, more customer service, all these other ways to get the remaining animals into loving homes in that community.”
Although the most visible aim is to help animals and shelters in need, there is a human component driving it all, says Sweep.
“People who work at other shelters are just like us. They love animals just as much as we do. But for so long, so many of them have felt like they’re working on their own,” says Sweep. “This is their life work. Imagine spending every day doing something you are so passionate about, but there is no support from the community. No donations coming in. Not even enough dog food some days. It’s heartbreaking. Through this partnership we’re able to say ‘You’re not alone. We’re here for you. You're doing some great work. Let's do some great work together.’”
That solidarity extends to the other two founding partners in the Animal Transport Alliance. Wisconsin Humane Society and the Anti-Cruelty Society of Chicago will help transport animals from high-need areas and find ways to mentor and free up resources at other shelters. A second, larger transport vehicle is in the works and will allow the alliance to further impact these communities.
“I can’t wait to see the ripple effect of positive change this new program will create,” says Johnson. "We can accomplish so much more by working together. Getting a truck on the road is just the beginning.”